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Lord Speaker: Powers

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 31 January 2019


Asked by

To ask the Leader of the House what plans she has to make proposals for a review of the powers of the Lord Speaker.

My Lords, this is a matter for the House to decide. Of course, it is open to any noble Lord to bring forward a proposal to the Procedure Committee. Although I do not intend to do it myself, I understand that a proposal for a review is likely to be tabled for the next meeting. As a member of the Procedure Committee, I will of course consider any proposal.

I am grateful, in part, for that. When the Leader considers that, she might reflect on a couple of things, one of which is that this must surely be the only legislative Assembly anywhere in the world where at Question Time the only person not allowed to speak is the Speaker. That must be a first by anyone’s standards. I simply say to her that, to anyone watching from the Public Gallery or elsewhere, the proceedings in this House at Question Time are often a complete shambles. They are a shouting match and unintelligible to a neutral observer. It is now nearly two years since we debated this matter in the House and I ask the Leader to ensure—as far as it is within her power to do so—that we have a debate on and reach a decision about the Lord Speaker’s power, perhaps in time for an experiment to start at the beginning of the next Session.

As I said to the noble Lord, my understanding is that a proposal will be coming before the Procedure Committee. I have not seen it, so I am afraid that I cannot comment further. However, I am sure that, following a discussion on it, the Senior Deputy Speaker will update the House.

My Lords, I of course welcome the suggestion by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that there should be what was originally intended to be a five-year review of the Lord Speaker’s powers in this House, but I point out and emphasise that the House has always operated on the basis of self-regulation. That is an extremely valuable convention simply because it ensures that each and every Peer in this House takes responsibility for the courtesies of the House. I understand that these have become somewhat frayed of late, but to undermine self-regulation would be an unfortunate precedent.

I agree with the noble Baroness. I believe that self-regulation works and characterises this House. It means that we do not need to resort, for instance, to selection of amendments and force groupings, programme Motions or guillotines, none of which, I think, would noble Lords want to be introduced to the House.

Does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House agree with me that this modest proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, which would give the Speaker some powers to moderate the way we deal with Questions, does not necessarily imply a wholesale change in the role of the Lord Speaker? This is simply a straightforward, stand-alone reform that is long overdue.

The noble Lord is of course a member of the Procedure Committee so he will no doubt make his views heard when a discussion is had.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, that we should be able to show courtesy to each other at Question Time. More often than not this is the case, but can my noble friend the Leader enlighten the House about how often she or her Front-Bench colleagues have to intervene to assist the House at Question Time?

Since July 2018 we have had 76 sitting days with Oral Questions and the Front Bench has had to intervene only 13 times.

My Lords, is it not correct that, when the role of Lord Speaker was originally set up, a review after the term of office of the first Lord Speaker was envisaged? That review never took place. Is it not timely to look at the role of the Lord Speaker, in its entirety but including Question Time? While I hesitate to disagree with my successor, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has just described how the Front Bench can assist self-regulation at Question Time. For many people—although we know that the Leader of the House is completely impartial—having a member of the Government assist the House in deciding who should speak does not feel good in a parliamentary democracy. That role could be undertaken by the Lord Speaker without undermining the principle of self-regulation.

The noble Baroness will be aware that aspects of the Lord Speaker’s role were considered by a group on working practices, chaired by my noble friend Lord Goodlad, which produced a report in 2011. In subsequent years, the House took various decisions on its proposals, including deciding not to change the role of the Lord Speaker at Question Time. As I said in my original Answer to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I believe a discussion will be had in the Procedure Committee. If any recommendations are made, it will be for the House to decide whether it wishes to support them.

The important thing is that this is done; it is not good for it to fester. The word “timely” was just used, and this is a point we should consider. I would like to make a minor correction. If I understood the Leader of the House correctly, she said that the Chief Whip or somebody else had to intervene 13 times—I think that means from the Dispatch Box. The number of hands pushing and indicating is way above that. We have to recognise that this happens far more often than the figure of 13 perhaps suggests.

The noble Baroness is right: that is interventions from the Dispatch Box. Generally, though, as we have said, I believe that Question Time works, that noble Lords show respect and courtesy towards one another, and that self-regulation is an important characteristic of this House.

My Lords, appreciating that I might put myself at some risk, having served in your Lordships’ House for no more than seven months, I suggest to the Leader that we would get much more out of Question Time if it were conducted by the Lord Speaker, who would maintain equity between party and non-party groups and perhaps other disciplines as well.

I assure my noble friend that the Chief Whip and I do everything we can to ensure fairness around the House in answering Questions. In fact, almost 85% of tabled Questions asked since July did not come from the government Benches. We try to ensure as Question Time goes on that all Members of the House are given the opportunity to speak and to ask questions, which is an extremely important part of scrutiny of the Government.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness the Leader of the House recall Walter Bagehot’s distinction between the dignified parts and the efficient parts of the constitution, and his observation that the dignified parts were imposing, old and venerable? Does she agree with me that the Lord Speaker on the Woolsack should remain dignified—not to mention imposing, old and venerable—and should not become efficient because, as the previous Lord Speaker has said, it is crucial to the effectiveness of this Second Chamber that we preserve our culture and practice of self-regulation?